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Family Tech

Posted at 9:25 p.m. PST Saturday, Jan. 13, 2001

The case of the unpaid electronic phone bill

BY LARRY MAGID
Special to the Mercury News

If you're managing your family's finances, then you owe it to yourself to at least explore the benefits of online bill presentment. Services such as StatusFactory.com and Paytrust.com go beyond electronic bill paying. They also deliver your bills via a secure Web site so you never have to open envelopes or file away paper bills. Fees vary but most customers will pay under $10 a month. For an extra $19.95 Paytrust will send you a CD-ROM at the end of the year with images of all your bills.

These services can also be programmed to pay your bills automatically. For example, several months ago I configured Paytrust to pay the amount due on my Pacific Bell phone bill as soon as it arrived. Other options include having it pay only the minimum balance (useful for credit cards), having it pay a fixed amount monthly or at other regular intervals or pay a bill automatically only if it doesn't exceed a specified amount.

Because of this service, I would sleep at night knowing that my credit cards, utility bills, mortgage and car payments and other bills were up to date. No risk of late payments, credit dings, unnecessary interest charges or dreaded ``service interruptions.'' Or so I thought.

I got a rude awakening early Tuesday morning when my wife came into the bedroom to tell me that none of our three phone lines was working. I immediately tried to call Pacific Bell but, when I dialed the company's 800 number, all I got was a message telling me that my service had been interrupted. So, I picked up my cell phone, spent a few minutes punching in the requisite touch tone codes to get to the right department and then got a recording saying something about ``unusually heavy call delays.'' I hung up so I wouldn't have to mortgage the house to pay my cell phone bill.

Then I used the cell phone to call Paytrust, which also had a recording about delays. After a few minutes on hold, my cell phone battery died and I was still clueless about what was happening.

Despite my lack of phone service, I could still access the Internet via my Sprint wireless broadband service so I logged on to Paytrust's Web site to check the status of my payments to Pacific Bell. The bill, according to the Web site, had been paid five days earlier via an electronics fund transfer (EFT) but this was the only payment since September. I didn't find any Pac Bell bills on the site, but I did find graphic replicas of a couple of overdue notices.

I went to a neighbor's house and, after several minutes on hold, got through to a very nice person in Pac Bell's collections department who told me that they hadn't received that electronic payment that Paytrust said it sent. The last payment she knew about was from September.

That didn't make any sense to me but my first priority was to get my phones turned back on so, instead of giving the representative an argument, I gave her a credit card number to cover the balance plus a $19 restoration fee for each one of my three lines. Because I've been a ``good customer'' she agreed to a one-time waiver of the security deposit that's usually assessed to customers whose phone service is interrupted for lack of payment.

My next call was to Paytrust to complain about them not paying my phone bills, but it was hard to be mad at the company after being told that Paytrust hadn't received any bills from Pac Bell. The only thing they did receive was the late notice that prompted them to make the recent electronic transfer that Pac Bell still hadn't posted.

Without phone service and caught in the middle of two companies with different stories, I asked the Paytrust person to make a conference call to Pac Bell to try to resolve the issue. The Pac Bell representative said that her computer confirmed that the company was sending the bills directly to Paytrust, and none of us could figure out why there was a problem.

That's when it occurred to me. A few days before I started using Paytrust, I decided to experiment with the online billing feature built into Quicken 2000 software. I signed up to have my Pacific Bell bills delivered electronically but then stopped using the Quicken service after discovering that Paytrust -- unlike the bill-paying feature built into Quicken -- could present all my bills, not just those from companies it had deals with.

As I found out later, when you use the Quicken online bill-paying service, Pac Bell sends out paper bills for two months and then stops, sending only electronic bills via Quicken. That explained why Paytrust was able to take care of previous bills but not recent ones.

My mistake was failing to cancel the Quicken bill-paying service before setting up Paytrust.

Even though the process wound up wasting my entire morning and keeping me from using my phones for about four hours, the story had a happy ending. My phone service finally did return and the Pac Bell representative got her company's collections department to reverse the $57 restoral fee and make a note on my account that late payments were due to an ``error.''

And I learned a valuable lesson about how human error combined with a lack of vigilance on my part and an over-reliance on technology can lead to a false sense of security.

I'll continue to use Paytrust because, despite the snafu, it's still more reliable than my having to remember to pay bills manually. But, from now on, I plan to periodically check to make sure that my regular bills are, in fact, being paid. And, if I ever decide to switch to another bill-paying service, I'll be sure to first tell my billers to stop sending bills to Paytrust. I also learned the importance of redundancy when it comes to notification of potential service interruptions.

This problem would have been avoided if, prior to shutting off service, Pac Bell had called or sent me a notice via certified mail.


Larry Magid is a technology journalist and commentator based in Palo Alto. Contact him at larry@safekids.com .

   

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